Much criticism of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reads Stephen’s aesthetic theories in chapter V as Joyce’s own: as a description of Portrait itself , or as programmatic of the later work. One thing that such an approach stands to overlook is the status of Stephen’s philosophizing as an action performed by a character in a novel.
This is where the novel of ideas differs from a philosophical essay. An essay asks one to focus on the argument, the accuracy of its premises, the rigour of its development, the applicability and generality of its conclusions. A statement in a novel may ask us to do all of that, but it also asks us to pay attention to the act of stating it: who is saying it, to whom, where and when, under what circumstances; what is the speaker doing in and with that act of stating it?; what do they want, or expect, or hope their auditor to do with it? what (a different question) does the auditor actually do with it?; what effects does it have further on down the line?
Stephen’s view of art is that proper art is static rather than kinetic. Proper art doesn’t invoke desire or loathing, which are the urges either to possess or to go from something. It arrests the mind and raises it above those emotions (Gabler V.1105-13). That’s what Stephen says, the content of it. But when we look at the act of saying it, the ways in which all this is part of the action of a novel, we see something rather different. In the very act of saying it, by means of saying it, Stephen is trying to lay claim to and possess something he does not yet have, the status of the artist; he’s fleeing those famous nets of nationality, language and religion. Stephen needs an auditor: he bribes the more impoverished Lynch with a supply of cigarettes; what he gets from Lynch is the stream of cynical banter that says his ears may be bought, but not his independence. The entire episode is steeped in a persistent sexual unease. Stephen is jealous of Emma Cleary’s friendship with the young Father Moran, and only a couple of pages after his sighting (but not approaching) her, in the very paragraph immediately preceding the one in which he makes that distinction between kinetic and static, the first aesthetic example he gives to Lynch is the story of a young woman whose heart is pierced by a long fine needle of shivered glass. It’s an odd and disturbing punishment at several removes, to which Stephen even denies the status of tragedy: it “is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions” (Gabler V.1001-02). None of that is static. It’s kinetic, marked everywhere by the ebb and flows of Stephen’s desires, as indeed one would expect of the actions of a novel. We see not only what Stephen is saying, but also some of the reasons behind his saying it. The narration of events lets us see things about Stephen that he may seem to be not entirely aware of. As the title reminds us, it’s the portrait of a young man.
So, on the one hand, we have a stated content; on the other, as this is a novel, we have also the act of stating it, the drama in which those statements play a role. The latter is not reducible to the former. The act of stating something can have effects that are not predictable or calculable from the actual content. It can often say more than the stated content, or things that the content is there to hide.
This split between the said and the saying, I would argue, is no less important in Finnegans Wake.
Let’s take the Wake‘s invocations of Giordano Bruno, and his philosophy of the reconciliation of opposites. Much Wake criticism reads this rather like reading Stephen’s aestheticizing in the Portrait: as a description of and guide to the way the Wake itself works, setting out its principles of construction. Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key takes this approach throughout. Here, for example, is the end of the trial scene in I.4, where we have a series of terms connected with Shaun “cumjustling” another series connected with Shem:
The hilariohoot of Pegger’s Windup cumjustled as neatly with the tristitone of the Wet Pinter’s as were they isce et ille equals of opposites, evolved by a onesame power of nature or of spirit, iste, as the sole condition and means of its himundher manifestation and polarised for reunion by the symphasis of their antipathies. Distinctly different were their duasdestinies. (92.06-11)
The source of this, as McHugh glosses it, is Coleridge’s paraphrase of Bruno in The Friend:
Every power in nature and in spirit must evolve an opposite as the sole means and condition of its manifestation, and all opposition is a tendency to reunion. This is the universal law of polarity or essential dualism, first promulgated … by Giordano Bruno. (McHugh 92)
And now here is Campbell and Robinson’s paraphrase (the square brackets are their own):
The hilarious hoot of Pegger’s windup contrasted as neatly with the sad tone of the wet pinter’s as were they, “this one” and “that one,” equals of opposites, evolved by a one-same power of nature or of spirit, which we may call “that other.” [And here a great law is illustrated: the great law, namely, of Bruno the Nolan; the law underlying the historical polar play of brother opposites generated by a common father. The law is as follows:] (1) Direct opposites, since they are evolved by a common power, are polarized for reunion by the coalescence of their antipathies. (2) As opposites, nevertheless, their respective destinies will remain distinctly diverse. (88-89)
What’s in those square brackets does all the work. It explicitly turns what’s being said into the principle behind the Wake, which is now a direct illustration of that great law, an example governed by it, as though what we see in the Wake is everywhere a reunion of opposites. Indeed, that’s the broad thesis of the Skeleton Key, which it shares with Campbell’s later work on what appears to him increasingly as monomyth, the one heroic story told everywhere and at every time.
But isn’t this approach to focus entirely on the content of what’s said, and to avoid the dimension of the act of utterance? The very repetition Campbell and Robinson find in the Wake, the way it appears to tell the same story over and over in various guises, would seem to indicate that one telling is never enough, that any coalescence of opposites is nothing more than a momentary stay, a prelude to their flying apart again. Earwicker and his attacker, for example, never seem to be clearly distinguished from one another, so that every apparently clear demarcation between them is likely to be upset almost immediately. The brothers multiply in their avatars, and the tables of correspondences among the main personages that Adaline Glasheen draws up in her three censuses sometimes shift considerably from one version to the next. The sheer repetition seems not so much a wealth of examples of the reunion of opposites, as a deep and persistent, even structuring anxiety about whether they do actually come together. If they do, why is once never even vaguely enough? The content of the statement, that opposites come together, is undermined everywhere by the fact of its countless repetition. Every repetition seems to say covertly, Well, that didn’t work, maybe this one will.
We get the same undermining in so many other aspects of the Wake. When Earwicker meets the Cad in I.2, he says he is innocent, but what gives away the game and catches the Cad’s suspicion is the simple fact that he’s said it in the first place, without provocation and out of the blue. HCE never knows when or whether he’s saying more about himself than he realizes. His moments of self-praise tend to be undone by other less flattering stories that occupy the same space as the ones he wants to tell, carried in the same words. His great outburst of civic pride in his achievements in III.3–his building of Dublin and wooing of ALP–is also the story of a marital rape. When every word stands to be a pun in any of 60 or so languages, we don’t so much have a unity of meaning as the certainty that for any reader, beginning with HCE himself, the very words you speak may be carrying a hidden and uneliminable testimony against you. It is, in short, hard to think of a book that is less like the unification of opposites than Finnegans Wake.
Campbell and Robinson’s approach is top-down. They begin with abstractions so broad as to be empty, accommodating any and every content: “opposites,” “polarities,” “reunion,” and so on. These oppositions then become blurred: as soon as you try to find a pure version of one, you find out it’s mixed with something else. But that, I would suggest, is not the experience of reading Finnegans Wake. What we find first of all is not a schema of oppositions ranged one against the other. To get such an abstraction, you’ve actually got to work rather hard, and tease it out of a text in which it’s not easily apparent. (Critically, it takes quite a time for that work to emerge: Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key quite amazingly appears only five years after the Wake itself. We have, to name only a few, Adaline Glasheen’s three censuses between 1956 and 1977; Clive Hart’s Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake in 1962; and Roland McHugh’s The Sigla of Finnegans Wake in 1976, four years before his Annotations.) What the reader encounters is nothing as clear-cut as oppositions. Instead, it’s a multiplicity of differences, where even the one word can appear divided against itself, with other meanings, even other languages, nestled within it and occupying its space. We can read Bruno’s motto itself, In Tristitia Hilaris Hilaritate Tristis, that way. In sadness itself there is always cheer to be found, and in cheerfulness sorrow. One never finds a pure sadness, a pure cheerfulness, one only abstracts them after the event. To imagine these pairings and conceptual oppositions as coming first is wishful: if only the world in all its contingency and irreducible difference were just the product of a simple and pure set of laws that have already accounted for everything, and for the sense of the world.
But that wishful process of making sense of everything through one magical and reassuring schema is figured within the book too. When for the sleeper every word may carry an unwanted freight that might just be giving the game away behind your back, it’s a defensive and wishful action to try to arrange everything into simple pairings: the things you want and the things you don’t, the desire to possess and claim, and the desire to abandon and fly from, the good things and the bad things. But it’s a never-ending process of winnowing out, and one with the seeds of its own failure already there. To say, as one is forced to, that these categories never really exist in a pure form but are always mixed in with their opposites may be little more than a face-saving way of saying that if you start off from abstract oppositions, you quickly find that it just doesn’t work. That Brunist schema of opposites, then, doesn’t represent the principle on which the book works, a law governing its wisdom, so much as something the book shows failing everywhere, the dreamer’s desperate and endless strategy of defense. Finnegans Wake is not so much a modernist version of Brunism as a demonstration of the impossibility of now being a Brunist.
And it is, isn’t it, a rather silly law. Is there really any such thing as a “historical polar play of brother opposites generated by a common father”? Would any historian, or philosopher of history, or anthropologist for that matter, seriously argue that history is the product of battling abstract polarities? Garrett Deasy might, with his confidence that “all history moves towards one great goal,” but he hardly stands for the world-view that Ulysses endorses. Bruno is an armature rather than a law: a way of constructing an elaborate fiction, no more the lesson of Finnegans Wake than that earlier armature, the Odyssey, was the lesson of Ulysses.